Austere and more successful in stagecraft than in creating sympathetic characters is probably the common impression. But Voltaire, no great friend of the French court, considered it one of the great achievements of the human mind, excelling anything of Shakespeare's. Flaubert greatly admired the work, and Gide praised the chorus sections. Like all Racine's work, the play is not naturalistic but poetic: it succeeds or fails as the poetry succeeds or fails. We miss what Racine intended by complaining that what little warmth emanates from the play comes from the minor characters: the honest but simple Abner and the long-suffering Princess Jehoshabeath, who meekly follows her husband's dictates. Similarly with Joash. His is a cloistered virtue, doubtless, but if he comes over as something of a prig that is all to Racine's purposes. The untried youth was to turn apostate in his later years, as Racine takes pains to emphasize, in the Introduction and the play itself, because man is born into sin, and cannot escape damnation by his own efforts. Racine was not writing fiction, but dramatizing something that was importantly true. The choruses put the matter plainly, and the play fails if we simply respond to them as poetry.
The plot is largely based on Biblical history. Athaliah, widow of the king of Judah, has abandoned the Jewish religion for the worship of Baal, and believes she has eliminated other members of the royal family. In fact, however, the late king's son, Joash, has been rescued by Jehoshabeath, wife of the high priest, and secretly raised in the Temple as Eliacin.
Act 1. Abner, Athaliah's general, assures Jehoiada, the high priest, that he would support a descendant of the king of Judah if one appeared. Jehoiada agrees with Jehoshabeath to reveal the existence of Joash, intending to dethrone Athaliah and bring the country back to the old faith.
Act 2. Athaliah goes into the Jewish temple and finds a child, Eliacin, whom she has seen in a threatening dream. Not knowing that this child is Joash, she asks Jehoiada to bring the child, and then invites him to come to live with her at the palace.
Act 3. Fearing what the dream foretells, Athalie demands Eliacin be sent as a hostage. The high priest decides to hasten the restoration of Joash to preclude plots by the treacherous Mathan, the chief priest of Baal.
Act 4. Eliacin is revealed as Joas, the true successor of the kings of Judah. The priests barricade the Temple. Act 5. Athaliah prepares to dislodge the rebels from the Temple. She comes under promise of safe passage into the Temple to claim Eliacin and reputed treasure of the place. Joash is then proclaimed king, when armed priests seize Athaliah and kill her guards. The army beseiging the Temple flees. Athaliah is executed.
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